The UK’s visa system has been undergoing a transformation. It is finally saying goodbye to the cumbersome process of hard copy documents and reams of paper, and is instead becoming increasingly digitalised, with ID checks being made via biometric data (such as fingerprints and photographs), online forms and scanning systems being used for submitting most visa applications and e-gates facilitating easier entry into the UK.
This digital journey has culminated in the Home Office’s EU Settlement Scheme, which has been set up to regularise the status of around four million EU nationals and their family members living in the UK. Individuals can submit their application via a smartphone and the process relies on data-sharing across government departments, rather than the individual being required to prove their eligibility using hard copy documents. Crucially, in most cases, the evidence of a successful applicant’s status in the UK can only be viewed online.
Building on the apparent ‘success’ of the scheme, the government now wants to revolutionise the UK’s immigration system so that, from January 2021, all foreign workers in the UK will have a digital status rather than a residence permit or a visa in their passport. This status will be checked on entry to and exit from the UK and will be synched with other government departments to ensure data on an individual is kept up to date.
These changes will have massive ramifications for businesses employing foreign workers.
Firstly, all UK employers are required to check a new employee’s right to work in the UK and, prior to these changes, this could only be done by checking hard copy documents such as a passport or biometric residence permit. The Home Office has now introduced an online checking service which allows an employer to verify an individual’s status via a website.
This works as follows: the individual logs into the migrant right to work check access point and provides the employer with a share code. The employer then enters the code and the individual’s date of birth into the employer access point to view their online profile. They must check the person has the right to work, that they look like the photograph on the online profile and they must retain a copy of the check.
The online system is currently optional and only available for certain categories of migrant, but the intention is to phase it in over time. However, because many people with status under the EU Settlement Scheme are not being given residence documents, HR teams need to familiarise themselves with the technology now as they are soon likely to encounter potential employees who will only be able to evidence their right to work through the online system.
Businesses will also need to amend their internal policies on recruitment to ensure they are in line with the process for online checks. Also, external communications with job applicants such as offer letters and contracts will need to be updated to ensure that applicants are aware of what they are required to provide the employer through the online checking system.
Digitalised status also has implications for travel. Currently, the majority of visa holders can evidence their status via a physical document, which they present on arrival into the UK. The idea with digital status is that this will be checked online by the carrier before travel using the holder’s passport, and again by border control on arrival.
Although digital-only status is already a reality for some people, recent reports have emerged that airline staff, who have to check immigration status before allowing passengers to board flights to the UK, are not yet trained on the new process. HR teams may need to warn international hires of this until the system beds in properly.
With high volumes of affected people on the horizon, HR teams should get ahead of the curve and start preparing their staff and policies for the changes now.
Joanna Hunt is managing associate and Kathryn Denyer is senior practice development lawyer at Lewis Silkin